"Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart." ~ William Wordsworth

The Writing Life Too

And if you're reading this, it means you're not writing.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sky is turning a pale blue this morning and another day of Indian Summer glory is on its way. Last night I went out with a friend and when I came home I crawled into bed with the latest issue of The Sun. And I read the most amazing essay, Raven by Craig Childs. Childs writes about the wilderness and this piece is excerpted from The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. It “chronicles the desert ecologist’s intimate encounters with a variety of animal species in the American and Canadian West.” The book will be published in December and I’m planning on buying a copy and perhaps will also buy it for Christmas gifts.

Childs writes beautifully and in Raven, he follows a raven into a canyon. Here are the first few paragraphs, that I’m sure will whet your appetite for more:

“When the first raven came, it was alone, a piece of blackness laboring across a cold dawn sky. I, too, was alone, walking on a winter morning in southeast Utah, crossing a hard desert basin studded with towers of eroded rock. With nothing else but Jurassic sandstone to look at, the raven and I took an immediate interest in one another. The coal-colored bird turned its head midair, its power beak pointing at me like a librarian’s finger. I stopped and watched it go by.

It was a big bird, a sorcerer wearing sleek black robes, its two talons tucked against its body as if each grasped a pearl. It altered its path slightly, making a jog around me, its wings laid out as it banked twenty feet off the ground. When it swept in close, I said good morning to it. Startled by my voice, the raven veered away from me. Its wings beat loudly as it let a cough a sound, a surprised quork, and then flew back to wherever it was going.”

We then follow Childs and the raven into a canyon. Along the way we learn that ravens, or Corvus Corax, have the highest bird IQs along with others in the corvid family, crows, magpies, and jays. They can use tools such as sticks, can unzip backpacks and open ice chests. They hunk in packlike fashion and can follow a person’s gaze.

When Childs enters the canyon, he discovers that the raven is one of a crowd and that they don’t want him there. In fact, the birds swooped down at them and threw stones at him. He’s forced to back out of the canyon, but returns later with friends, one who is a raven talker. The group discovers why the canyon is being so fiercely guarded and readers learn that ravens also murder their own to maintain social order.

I cannot recommend this piece enough and am looking forward to buying Child’s book. The Sun Contributors page also notes that Childs lives in Colorado, and recently completed a descent in an uncharted river in Tibet, “180 miles of deep gorges, white water, and villagers aghast at his and his companion’s presence. He also enjoys long walks, the longest of which so far was 120 days in the Grand Canyon.” His books include House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization across the American Southwest and The Way Out: A True Story of Rain and Survival, Soul of Nowhere: Traversing Grace in a Rugged Land, Grand Canyon: Time Below the Rim with Gary Ladd.

At his website, www.houseofrain.com he writes: “My writing continues at a frenetic pace, the cab of my truck littered with receipts and envelopes scratched upon with illegible words. But this a mere byproduct, verbiage left over from experiences had on the land, raw encounters among mountain lions, boulders, water holes, and drifting thunderstorms.”

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Foggy morning and rain is on the way today. We’ve had two glorious days of weather here, quintessential Indian Summer and it’s supposed to return tomorrow. The fourth day of the raging fires in southern California, a place normally known for its breezy, moneyed lifestyle. Now the place looks like the end of the world.

Novelist Raymond Chandler described the Santa Ana winds of southern California this way: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen.” Red Wind

It’s been awhile since I experienced the Santa Anas but yesterday I talked with a friend who lives in Brentwood and he described the nighttime winds blowing through as spooky. Because they are associated with high fire danger, particularly in the chaparral brush growing on the Southern California mountain slopes they’re called devil winds or devil's breath. They blow in from the Great Basin that lies between the Sierras and the Rockies from September through March and are thus dry and hot and troublesome. The weather prognosticators say that the winds are supposed to ease today, although they can whip up with the frenzy of a hurricane and yesterday at times the helicopters were grounded because of high winds. Normally they pummel through the canyons at 80 m.p.h. but during the recent firestorms that have decimated the region they’ve been clocked at up to 112 miles an hour.

It’s almost impossible to keep up with the stats, but San Diego County has been hit the hardest, the inferno has also hit the La Jolla Indian Reservation, Camp Pendelton, and about a dozen fires are raging. I-5 been closed, the fires have killed three, displaced about a 824,000 people, thousands who are holed up at Qualcomm Stadium, and destroyed or damaged at least 1,700 homes and businesses, and thousands of acres. Since the Civil War this is the largest forced displacement of Americans and the smoke from the fires are now reaching hundreds of miles into the Pacific.

We have heard over and over that the firestorms were simply too many, too hot and too mighty for the beleaguered fire crews. But here are two things to think about: why isn’t the mainstream media focusing on how most of these fires have been started by arsonists and how no one is talking about the California National Guard. In May a representative from the Guard noted that it was missing $1 billion in equipment such as trucks and radios because they were being used in Iraq or had never been replaced by the government.

You see when a Guard troop goes to Iraq or other countries the equipment doesn’t come home with them and the equipment for the Guard is funded by the Federal government. In March, the head of the National Guard told a congressional committee that units had on hand an average of about 40 percent of their required equipment and that rebuilding supplies to a proper level would require an extra $40 billion in funding. There are about 20,000 California National Guard troops and about 1500 fighting the fires. Does this mean the rest are in Iraq guarding Haliburton?

Monday, October 22, 2007

“When you’re doing you’re meant to do, you benefit the world in a unique and irreplaceable way. This brings money, friendship, true love, inner peace, and everything else worth having; it sounds facile, but it’s really true. Richard Nelson Bolles, he author of the perennial bests-seller What Color is Your Parachute? puts it this way: ‘Your mission is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Martha Beck

The sky a pale blue and the small maple across the street has now slipped into its full autumn finery of scarlet. On Friday I arrived at the Oregon coast and as soon as I stepped out of the car into driving winds, I was aware that I was in the midst of a big storm system and that a whole new season had taken hold of the place.

On Thursday tropical storm Ling Ling swept into the region with high winds, knocking out power and toppling trees all the way up to Canada. When I walked out onto the beach on Friday evening I scarcely recognized the place. A small stream had completely changed course, the beach had shrunk to about half its normal size, and the deep sand banks leading up to the road were flattened out. But probably most surprising were the huge piles of bull kelp that were scattered everywhere. Bull kelp look like a long whip with a bulb at the end. On Friday night a family walked past me, four kids each trailing one leaving tracks in the sand. One pile of kelp was about ten feet long and four feet tall.

It was like a mad sculptor had stopped by dropping piles of abstract designs, Dada-like, against the wet sand and meanwhile, the outer the waves thundered at about 10 feet high.

Friday night I was awakened in the night three times by rain pelting the windows sounding like hail or pebbles. Most of my students drove in from Portland on Saturday morning and all had stories to tell about driving through the storm. One woman said she’d been through Hurricane Andrew and the storm was only a few notches lower in ferocity. Then all day the weather changed hour by hour with several periods of sunshine. By Sunday morning things had calmed down, the waves and most of the kelp piles swept back to sea.

I taught a workshop called A Vivid Vision. It’s about if you know/have a strong vision for your life you can move toward it with more ease and purpose. So a lot of the workshop was about excavating and exploring, dreaming dreams and imagining the future. There was a delightful young man in the workshop with his mother—I believe he was 17 and a senior in high school. I had the students write a list of things they love and first on his list was “women” and I couldn’t help but laugh harder than I have in weeks. The idea for this exercise is that you start incorporating more of what you love into your daily life. As Amy Tan once said, “Everyone must dream. We dream to give ourselves hope. To stop dreaming—well, that’s like saying you can never change your fate.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

I have been listening to Garrison Keillor’s storytelling for most of my adult life. Each morning his Writer’s Almanac delivers a poem in my email box. Each weekend that I’m home I tune in to some part of his weekend show, Prairie Home Companion. Sometimes the jokes are weak or the musicians don’t do much for me. But I keep coming back for Garrison’s dulcet voice weaving stories about a mythical place. I keep coming back for his gentle humor and because he gives me hope.

Lately I have also enjoyed his essays that appear in salon.com. Today’s piece is about a Sunday morning in a Baltimore church, his father, and how his father never knew him, H.L. Mencken and grace. And in the middle comes this passage:

“Now I'm an old, tired Democrat, sick of this infernal war that may go on for the rest of my life and in which more of our brethren will die miserably, both American and Iraqi. I'm sick of politics today, the cleverness and soullessness of it. I am still angry at Al Gore for wearing those stupid sweaters in 2000 and pretending he didn't know Bill Clinton, and I am angry at everyone who voted for Ralph Nader. I hope the next time they turn the key in the ignition their air bags blow up.”

Last night I was playing mahjongg with friends and our conversation led to this supposition: your spiritual beliefs and political opinions are meaningless without the ability to think critically. You might want to read the whole piece and the responses to it at www.salon.com/opinion/keillor/10/17/baltimore

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The fog is still blanketing everything, making the neighborhood look like a horror movie set. I’ve been up since 5 revising a chapter on antagonists. Some days I wish I could tell wanna-be writers that on weekends I stay in bed with a book, but that just wouldn’t be true. I almost never sleep in, and I rarely take days off from writing. Now, I’m not always sure this is a virtue. But the more I work on a piece, no matter what it is, the closer I stay to it, then the easier it is to write. If I write a lot my brain is always working on it and new ideas will arrive when I’m in the shower or out walking or running errands. The trick is to get them down right away. So I like to keep my brain primed, my thoughts centered on a book or article.

Another trick for me comes when I’m juggling on multiple projects. Right now I have at least six book ideas floating around in various stages. I had dinner with a writer the other night. She had been writing fiction for six years and hasn’t been published yet. Meanwhile, her husband has a serious illness that is severely impacting their lives and happiness and dreams of the future. She wants to write about it but is afraid to stop writing fiction.

I told her that it seems to me that most writers should juggle projects. Now, I know some authors who are working on 1000-page sagas and it doesn’t always make sense for them to put down the novel and draft short stories. But for most of us writing short pieces has a similar effect as going for a brisk walk. You return home feeling enlivened and peppy with your joints loose and your emotions calm.

But there’s another point here—no matter what your major projects you also need to write about what pisses you off or keeps you awake at night. We need to speak back to our demons, our ghosts, our waking nightmares. This is the stuff that already contains so much juice it’s a shame not to dig in. Oh, and a big congrats to Al Gore. Sure you don't want to run?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The sky is still dark with dawn a few minutes away. The days are rapidly growing shorter and I’m not yet accustomed to it. I’ve been thinking about how writers live their lives. Yesterday I interviewed Diana Gabaldon for an upcoming article in The Writer. She is now writing two series, but the books in her main series, the Outlander stories are usually about 300,000 words. So I was curious about how her brain worked; how she tracked all her characters and shaped her complicated plots. I learned she does most of writing between midnight and four a.m. and that she doesn’t outline or write in a straight forward or linear way. She writes bits and pieces and scenes and then starts putting it all together sort of like a puzzle. Because she’s up late in the night she wakes at about nine and starts her day by answering emails and the like to get her synapses fired. She then works on her book for about an hour in the morning and then eats lunch and spends the afternoon away from her desk. This hour in the morning is a fertile breeding ground for what she writes in the night, since her layers of consciousness are working on it during the day.

Last weekend when I was in Edmonds, I heard Timothy Egan speak about his writing and living the writing life. In case you’re not familiar with him, he’s a gorgeous writer and along with Truman Capote has influenced my writing enormously. He mentioned that when he travels he carries A River Runs Through It and that Norman Maclean’s elegant words never fail to inspire him. Egan won the National Book Award for his latest book The Worst Hard Times---I’ve been recommending it to people ever since I read it. It’s beautifully written and is about the people who stayed behind in the Dust Bowl states during the Great Depression and it is so taut and suspenseful and intimate that you can hardly believe that you’re reading history.

When Egan talked I learned that he brings a blue collar work ethic to his writing and the idea for the book came when he was traveling through these states writing about the deaths of towns in the area. While other parts of the country are full of newcomers, these states are emptying out and ghost towns litter the prairie lands. And he started hearing from people who still remembered the terrible dust storms of the 30s, especially Black Sunday, and eventually the book came together, augmented by interviews with survivors, research and artifacts.

During the talk Egan talked about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction but said that all writing comes down to storytelling. That storytelling is encoded in our DNA. He reminded us that when you’re writing nonfiction you need to step back and make sure it’s still a story and not random information and then when you write fiction you need to inhabit the dream and visit the fiction world every day.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pale sky this morning with no rain. I’m back from a weekend in the Seattle area. I taught two workshops at the Write on the Sound conference in Edmonds, Washington, then taught a mini-workshop at the Barnes and Noble in downtown Seattle. I arrived in Edmonds by train on Friday night and after checking into my hotel, ate dinner and walked around town. I won’t get into the details of the dinner because it was disappointing, but the town is such a jeweled treasure, set alongside the sparkling waters of Puget Sound. It’s a charming, upscale town and I was mostly glad the shops were closed as I wandered around the downtown area, peering into windows brimming with enticing wares. But it’s also a town firmly connected to the arts and I noticed a sign in a coffee house advertising for a “Zen barista.” I walked down to the water as the sun sunk into the horizon and a group of scuba divers were preparing to enter the water. When I asked one diver why they were diving at night, he replied with a heavy, German accent, “because the fish are sleeping,” so I never did learn why they dive at night, although I know that lots of divers train there.

On Saturday morning I taught a workshop on anti-heroes to a packed room and was gratified to note the interest in the topic. I explained my thesis that in a rapidly-changing world that characters cannot necessarily be assigned as good or bad guys, that many inhabit realms in between and can be colored gray. The rest of the day I sat in on a few workshops including one taught by the unflappable Jennie Shortridge who was teaching the how and why of writing sex scenes. As my stomach was bothering me (the meal of the previous evening a suspect in my discomfort) I didn’t get to hear it all, but it was fun and Jenny has great insights into fictional characters. That evening dinner was Thai food and wonderful.

I taught a workshop on writing nonfiction proposals on Sunday morning and at one point I explained that a book proposal was like a mini-business plan and is typically about 50 pages. One woman, with a distinctly unhappy look etched on her face complained that if a writer is going to write 50 pages of a proposal, that you might as well write the book. Well, the reason is simple, nonfiction editors don’t read manuscripts, they read proposals and base buying decisions on a proposal.

A friend whisked me off to Seattle after the conference for another lovely Thai lunch, then on to the book signing and mini workshop. Now, I taught this workshop last weekend in Eugene also and it’s about how to live the writing life. Or, at least what I’ve discovered about living the writing life. Sometimes I write about these topics in this blog or in my column or newsletter. It’s mostly common sense advice about reading a lot, writing a lot, having a plan and maybe having some fun along the way with a bunch of examples from my life and my students' and clients’ lives.

After the workshop was underway, a woman joined us in the front row. After she sat down I asked her if people told her she looked like Angela Bassett (she was a dead ringer). She replied that they did when she was younger. So I countered that she was looking great now and we continued. Afterward, I signed books and chatted with some of the people and then went with my friend to the checkout because he was buying books. And ran into the Angela-Bassett look-alike again. Sorry, I foolishly didn’t learn her name. And she told me that she was so glad she’d come that day to hear me, that it had been especially hard to be motivated to leave home because she’s been diagnosed with bone cancer. When I asked about her prognosis, she said the doctors had bad news for her, but she was ignoring their gloom because “she had too much writing to do.”

And I’m so humbled by meeting her. Wishing we can meet up again and her health somehow improves, that she beats the cancer. And I’m so grateful for this writing life and for all the writers I meet.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Snow is falling in the mountains and while usually October is a long swath of Indian summer, this year, the rains seem to have arrived to stay. Since it was raining last night, I took a quick walk and went past a yarn store in the neighborhood. I don’t knit but every time I pass it I feel drawn to go inside and look around. Besides the rows and rows of brightly colored, muted, and no doubt organic (after all this is Oregon) yarns, there is a cafĂ© with tables and chairs. Last night a group of women were gathered together at a table chatting and knitting away. And I’ve rarely seen such a cozy sight of such community and congeniality. I was reminded of sewing and quilting bees of former times.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how to maintain community while still accomplishing the lonely task of writing. In my bio on my Between the Lines book it says that “Jessica Morrell is surrounded by writers.” And so I am and several of my close friends are writers. But while many writers gather together in a critique group, I instead lead them with a firm objective to help writers get published. Yesterday my latest fiction group met and the members are talented and diverse and fun. But I’m going to send out an email to fine-tune the procedure so everyone is heard equally. I’m not entirely fond of acting as the Alpha female, but I can and I will.

A few years ago I was attending a monthly meeting of writers. I was sitting in one of the front rows of the charming old church they meet in. And early in the evening, I happened to turn around and gaze at those gathered. And I swear it looked like an asylum had emptied out. There were so many wild-eyed and odd people that seemed to telegraph some sort of mental illness that I was shaken and stayed away from the meetings for awhile. Usually when you attend writing conferences you notice several people a few sandwiches short of a picnic, and I’ve often wondered about this. I’ve heard that dentists have the highest rate of suicide of any profession. I believe it has something to do with how their patients view them (as in with fear and trepidation) as they stick sharp objects in their months and inflict pain. So what do the people at dentist’s conferences look like? You gotta wonder.

So while I have a community of writers, I’m selective of who can enter my inner circle and some of my tribe is a bit more far flung. I have writing friends in the Midwest, Canada, Texas, on the East coast, and my writing newsletter is sent to all parts of the world. Sometimes it seems to me that if you cannot meet regularly with your tribe that you need to carry them inside you anyway. You need to reach out with regular emails and phone calls and letters.

I was in Eugene over the weekend teaching and signing books at a Barnes and Noble. I spent time with a man who was formerly in one of my critique groups. In fact he used to drive from Eugene to Portland weekly. He’s a retired teacher and is one of the most well read, astute, insightful and just plain delightful people I’ve known. Our conversations were a smorgasbord of politics and art and history and personal stories and reminisces. We each had a notebook with us and were writing down book titles the other recommended, the table littered with books. And days later I’m still warmed by this conversation.

Since we live in a time when our political leaders want us to feel afraid and helpless and dependent and isolated, these kind of conversations are especially important. You see, it’s so much easier to rule people who are cowed and uninformed and alone. So I’m reaching out, I’m looking for more people in my tribe.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sky is pale grey and the morning news reports that Jimmy Carter is spending his 83rd birthday in Sudan and more rain is on the way. Yesterday I arrived home from the weekend in Eugene in a driving rain. I stopped at the nearby farmer’s market and bought produce and a jar of honey from farmers, who looked huddled and miserable in the cold. But one stand still had raspberries and blackberries for sale, although the teens selling them were wearing gloves, scarves, and winter jackets.

I taught a workshop in narrative nonfiction and later gave a mini workshop at the Barnes and Noble and signed books. There are some parts of my life I don’t have quite figured out but this I know: that I’m privileged to meet amazing people and hear amazing stories as someone who teaches writers. The main theme in my nonfiction workshop was that when you write from life you need to use fictional techniques, thus using scenes, dialogue, conflict, tension. In my workshop I assigned two in-class assignments and the results were amazing. One woman, who wants to write about motherhood, told the tale of bringing her toddler into the emergency room because he was weak and dehydrated from the flu—the tension was amazing. Another writer wrote about betrayal and a crazy roommate. Yet another write wrote about the solace of dusk, the blue hour. Then another writer described her recent visit to a friend of 30 years who has breast cancer.

However, the story that really stayed with me came from a woman who needed to be coaxed by her friend to read out loud. At the lunch break this woman and I had walked around the campus, searching for something hot to drink without success. She’d told me that she wants to write a memoir about her experiences with caring for her son. When he was 19 he went through a windshield at 90 miles an hour. After he was in a coma for three months the hospital staff urged her to move on with her life and gave her a list of nursing homes to care for her comatose son. After visiting some of these homes with his 19 year-old girlfriend, they concluded they needed to bring him home, still in a coma, to care for him. The hospital didn’t agree with this decision.

Which is where the essay began that she read to the quiet room, weeping. It began that she remembered the sweetest words she ever heard from her son. This came after five months of caring for him at home. After waving hamburgers and other scents beneath his nose. After unclenching his crabbed hands and straightening his Achilles tendon. After changing diapers and all sorts of efforts that brought about no response. Then he developed a problem—his brain was exposed.

The family rushed him to the hospital for emergency surgery. The surgeon wanted the family out of the room. The family demanded to stay. The surgeon wasn’t bothering to use anesthesia, the family demanded that he did. So after applying Lydocaine, he began immediately stitching up her son. And his first words in eight months were “What the fuck?” The sweetest words to a mother’s ears.

He didn’t immediately emerge from the coma, it took stops and starts. But he is alive and while brain damaged, she reports that he’s so changed, so sweet and wise and kind. That living with him is like living with the Dali Lama.

You must see that this is why I teach writers.